Oil spills keep happening. It’s time for offshore drilling to go

Reconciliation bill offers chance to change course

A person takes photos near oil washed up on Huntington State Beach on Oct. 3 after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform near Huntington Beach, Calif. (Mario Tama/Getty Images file photo)
A person takes photos near oil washed up on Huntington State Beach on Oct. 3 after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform near Huntington Beach, Calif. (Mario Tama/Getty Images file photo)
Posted October 29, 2021 at 6:00am

The recent oil spill near Huntington Beach, Calif., in which a nearly 18-mile-long offshore pipeline released thousands of gallons of crude oil not far south of Los Angeles, was the latest example in a long line of disasters caused by the fossil fuel industry. In a world where the climate crisis is quickly accelerating, putting our coastlines at serious risk from rising sea levels and more intense storms, we can’t afford any more business as usual from the offshore oil and gas industry. We have to change course now.

As chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, I am moving to get that transition underway. Last month, our panel approved a provision in our portion of the budget reconciliation bill to permanently end new offshore fossil fuel leasing along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. That provision was included in the reconciliation framework released Thursday. It must remain in the final version and become law.

Ending new offshore leasing is part of the sweeping change we need to confront the major consequences of oil spills. The disaster near Huntington Beach created a toxic oil slick on the ocean’s surface measuring 13 square miles, the equivalent of more than 6,200 football fields. The beach and its waters, both critical to the economy and quality of life, were closed for more than a week. Major events expected to attract hundreds of thousands of tourists, including the Pacific Airshow, the annual Huntington Beach Surf Contest and Surf City Days, were postponed or canceled. The damage was so severe that Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an emergency declaration.

Residents who have come in direct contact with the oil now face both short- and long-term health risks. A study of workers who cleaned up the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico found persistent health issues several years later. Local fishermen and women in the Huntington Beach area, many of whom are immigrants, fish for subsistence, putting them at continued risk of eating contaminated seafood.

The oil spill has also been a death sentence for wildlife. Dead birds and fish, coated in oil, washed up on the beach’s shore. In the nearby wetlands and marshes, which are home to approximately 90 species of birds (at least 10 percent of which are threatened or endangered), oil trapped in the sediment is effectively stuck there forever, permanently impacting these ecosystems.

The disaster at Huntington Beach represents just a tiny sample of the potential destruction that waits under the ocean’s surface. The approximately 200 miles of active oil and gas pipelines off the California coast pale in comparison to the 8,600 miles of active pipelines that threaten the Gulf of Mexico, where millions of residents are still rebuilding their lives more than a decade after Deepwater Horizon. Rising seawater temperatures are also causing stronger and more destructive hurricanes, increasing the likelihood of damaged oil and gas infrastructure and more oil spills. Much of the offshore drilling infrastructure is also aging, or even completely abandoned, making it a veritable ticking time bomb for another disaster. We now estimate more than 18,000 miles of abandoned pipelines litter the sea floor.

Unfortunately, as we know all too well, we can’t rely on the fossil fuel industry to protect us from these growing risks. Amplify Energy, the company that owns the cracked 41-year-old pipeline at Huntington Beach, failed to report anything to state and federal authorities until nearly seven hours after the first warning signs. Inspections since the spill suggest the pipeline’s primary crack may have been present anywhere from several months to a full year ago. Before the leak, the company had been cited for noncompliance close to 125 times.

Federal oversight of offshore drilling is also far too lax. The Government Accountability Office recently found that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the federal agency that regulates offshore drilling, has failed to ensure that fossil fuel companies make needed safety checks for offshore pipelines. BSEE has also not adequately held oil and gas companies accountable for their obligation to shut down and clean up their abandoned equipment. The fossil fuel industry would prefer to simply pass these risks and their financial responsibility over to the American people.

For far too long, we’ve let offshore drillers put our economy, our quality of life and the health of our wildlife and oceans in harm’s way while they line their pockets at our expense. We can keep crossing our fingers before the next catastrophe strikes, or we can forge a new path forward based on safer sources of energy like wind and solar power that protect our economy, our environment and our communities. We can’t let this chance to end new offshore oil and gas leasing pass us by.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva is a Democrat representing Arizona’s 3rd District. He chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and is a senior member of the Education and Labor Committee.